I Want My Hat Back

Rather like Good Little Wolf, this is a darker-than-average tale that still manages to be very funny.   It is an unusual book in the sense that very little emotion is conveyed either by the expression of the characters or by the narration.  In fact there is no narration, as the story is merely the dialogue between the various characters.

The protagonist is a large brown bear, who has lost his hat.  He asks various animals if they have seen it, to no avail.  Sharp-eyed readers may spot the following a few animals in, however…

The bear, oblivious, continues on his way, after the first more complex moment of the story.  Unlike the other animals who explain fairly simply that they have not seen the hat, the rabbit defends himself excessively and suspiciously:

No.  Why are you asking me.

I haven’t seen it.

I haven’t seen any hats anywhere.

I would not steal a hat.

It is not until later, when someone asks him to describe his hat, that the bear has his moment of realisation: ” I HAVE SEEN MY HAT.”

He runs back off to find it, and having confronted the rabbit, sits down with his hat.  The rabbit is conspicuously absent, and when asked by an innocent squirrel if he’s seen a rabbit in a hat his reply is an almost exact copy of the rabbit’s earlier denial –  apart from the telling line: “I would not eat a rabbit” …

Jon Klassen’s 2011 book was an instant hit when it came out and actually made it to the top of the NYT’s Bestseller List.  He is a man of many talents, mostly artistic (which is obvious from the style of I Want My Hat Back) and worked on the animation for both Coraline and Kung Fu Panda.   This year, 2013, he won the Caldecott Medal for Illustration for his latest book This is Not My Hat.

Despite some arguments about whether the ending of I Want My Hat Back is appropriate for a children’s story (in terms of a central character being eaten with no reported repercussions for the bear) it received critical acclaim and international popularity, particularly in Europe (Klassen is Canadian) where we apparently like our children’s books full of humour and the darker the better.  Certainly the moral of the story (steal a hat, risk getting eaten) is more in tune with the classic fairy-tales of those like the Grimm Brothers.   Where I think this deserves plaudits is in the interpretative work required by the reader to intuit the story from the spare illustrations and text, and particularly to read behind the lines of the defensive protestations of the rabbit and bear.

This won’t be to everyone’s taste, but children will love it.

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3 thoughts on “I Want My Hat Back

  1. Our fairy tale book deals with the controversy you mention – of a character being eaten without consequences for the eater – in relation to what it calls the “runaway cookie” series of stories (eg The Little Gingerbread Man). It points out that children delight in the ending (the treat being gobbled up) because “they know the story isn’t true, and besides they would never have acted so foolishly.” Presumably, the same could be said in this case – the rabbit

    • I think there’s been a movement away from the original fairy-tales and I don’t like that particularly. As you say, children are smarter than they are generally given credit for. They know the stories aren’t real, and they like being scared. The Gingerbread Man is very popular in this house because he gets eaten, as far as I can tell. I can’t think of a simpler illustration of hubris! I’ve written about this on here before as there is a school of thought that the sort of postmodern messing about with fairy-tales that’s gone on has confused their morality such that their clear messages are now muddied. Some people don’t like a simple concept of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ but others say that children benefit from the clarity of the old-fashioned stories. Which is not to say we want them to accept everything that the old stories say (gender issues being one significant problem) but does mean that this sort of wicked wit is rather nice. It’s out of fashion to punish stupidity (don’t build a straw house, don’t talk to strangers, don’t antagonise bears) but there’s definitely a lesson in there!

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